Take a Stab At It (Knives Out, 2019)

Knives_Out_PosterFamous Crime novelist Walter Thrombey is found dead after his birthday party. At first, declared a suicide, famous detective Benoit Blanc arrives and sees possible suspects in every member of his family. Caught up in it all is his nurse Marta who may have the most to gain.

I cannot really say more…so I am just going to say this:

SEE THIS MOVIE.

It is superbly written, directed and performed.  It is hilarious and a rewarding watch.  This was the most fun I had at the movies all year.

The Night He Came Home 40 Years Later (Halloween, 2018)

Halloween_PosterIt has been forty years since the rampage of Michael Myers in Haddonfield, IL.  And Michael Myers absolutely was caught and has been institutionalized ever since. He totally did not massacre a hospital or anything else.

The trauma had a profound effect on Laurie Strode, who is totally not the sister of Michael Myers. When Myers is being transferred to a tougher facility, the bus crashes and Myers escapes.  He goes on a new and bloodier rampage, while Laurie tries to protect her estranged daughter and her family.

Myers is not driven to find Laurie because he is her sister, he just is a big believer in finishing what you start…? So, much has been made of the fact that this film is a direct sequel to the original John Carpenter Classic.   There is a throwaway line that pretty much pushes all the other films into the realm of “urban legends” which…I guess works.  Admittedly, it makes some of this feel less personal. But at the same time, the portrayal of Laurie as a survivor of a brutal event who became fueled by her fear and paranoia to never be a victim again (shades of Terminator 2 here, including the pained relationship with her daughter who was taken away from her by the state, as she was training her to be a warrior) is really pretty exciting here.  Curtis is really great in the role.  And she shines each time she is on screen. There is a lot of meat for her here.

The film has some great callbacks to the original with little moments and visual cues. It also has some beautifully lit shots.

The film is really overloaded with characters, and this results in characters you kind of expect to matter more suddenly are just out of the story.  Now granted, some of the characters kind of stand out as victims. But Laurie’s grand daughter is a huge focus and then she disappears for nearly the entire sequence where Michael and Laurie are stalking each other through Laurie’s house. Granddaughter Allison’s boyfriend seems like he will play a pretty big role and literally just drops out of the film, never to be seen again.

There is at least one twist that seems to be either super predictable or totally out of left field depending on who you ask…but…oh well…

Is this a new classic entry in the franchise?  Well…not really.  Is it bad? No.  I actually really did enjoy the film. It can be uneven, but it is still an enjoyable ride. It does rise above a lot of the previous films in the franchise.  Again, Curtis is really good (really, the core cast of Curtis, Greer, Will Patton and Matichak is great).  Plus, the new Carpenter soundtrack is just killer all the way through.  I kid you not, that was almost worth the price of admission alone for me.

Wisps (the Fog, 1980)

the-fog-1980-posterAfter two TV movies, John Carpenter returned to the screen with an old fashioned  ghost story.  Telling the tale of small seaside town Antonio Bay, the Fog follows events leading up to their Centennial.  The town is planning to celebrate the near mythic four founders of the town.  In the days leading up, there are mysterious events.  Add a dense, unnatural fog.  The Fog is not the scary part…there is something in the fog.  Something cruel and angry.

Only a few townspeople know the true history.  Father Malone is a tortured priest who has kept the secret.  And the rest of the town continues on oblivious, writing off his warnings.  But people are starting to discover some bizarre incidents.  They find a ship that appears abandoned, until they find a sea ravaged body.  A body that gets up once on land.  There are knocks at doors, but there is nothing there.  When the fog finally overtakes the town, the vengeful spirits start to decimate the town, while some race to save others.

This is a wonderfully classic haunting story.  The characters are interconnected by the narration of Stevie Wayne, the local DJ who works in a converted lighthouse (it is, of course, related to the horrific history of Antonio Bay).   As Stevie, Adrienne Barbeau has a sexy and raspy tone.  Stevie is a single mother who is separated from her son, and her only way to communicate the threat is to keep talking on the radio.  She also has a playful and flirtatious relationship with weather man Dan (Carpenter regular Charles Cyphers).  Their relationship is entirely over the phone, but it is engaging.

Tom Atkins (always welcome in any film) is rugged local Nick Castle who picks up hitchhiker Elizabeth (Jamie Lee Curtis, returning from Halloween).  They end up trying to save people after hearing Stevie over the radio.  Hal Holbrook’s weary priest is a great performance.

The effects are so simply that they impress.  The fog crawls through forests, engulfs houses and the ghosts hidden within are emphasized by eerie back lighting.  Carpenter has filled the film with many great little touches, such as using the scenery of the town as a character all its own.

If you want a great and classic ghost story?  You won’t go wrong with the Fog.

The Night He Goes to School (Halloween H20, 1998)

halloween_h_2_o_posterBy 1997, slashers had almost seemed like a dead genre. Frankly, Halloween 6 could have been the death bell. Yet, 1996 was also the year that slasher pics got a shot in the arm. A little movie called Scream-a satirical look at the genre was a major hit that had people talking. It seemed to poke fun at the conventions of the slasher film, while following them quite a bite (though taking opportunity to turn some of them on their head). Scream proclaimed Halloween the grand-daddy of them all. And that got producers talking.

There were, as I recall, talks to bring back Carpenter (which I thought was exciting). Then there came talk of involvement from Kevin Williamson, writer of Scream (both one and two). This also excited fans. But the thing that really got people talking? Jamie Lee Curtis was back in the game. This brought about an interesting turn.

A few facts. Donald Pleasence was dead by the time they were writing this. Laurie Strode was dead according to previous films. So what did they do?

Spoilers ensue…

The filmmakers took an approach that both wiped the slate clean and yet adhered to some film continuity. It’s clear that none of the events in 4-6 happened now. As far as H2O is concerned? The series started with Halloween and the story had ended in Halloween 2. And now, the story was continuing 20 years later. For some this was upsetting, to others? It was a bit of relief.

The director Steve Miner (a veteran of the Friday the 13th series) had taken quite a task. Dimension was giving a big push to this new film. The end result is satisfying. I would say that it is one of the best of the sequels. The story is told at a fast pace, and they make sure not to confuse the audience. It’s clear from the start that Dr. Loomis has passed. And we rapidly learn Michael is still alive and still obsessed with his sister…a woman the world thought dead. But it turns out she has gone underground to avoid the pressures of the fame. And to avoid Michael. She’s now pretty much a functional alcoholic single mom. She is the head of a prestiges private school in the middle of nowhere.  She is haunted by images of Michael.

Her life of paranoia is driving an ongoing wedge between her and son John (Josh Hartnett) -What?  Not the family name?!  At first she is prohibiting him from going on the school camping which aggravates him as he was looking forward to being with his girlfriend Molly (Michelle Williams).  But as slasher films tend to go, Jon and Molly slip aside and stay at the school with their rebel friends Sarah (Jodi Lyn O’Keefe) and Charlie (Adam Hann-Byrd, whose career pretty much halted after this film-apparently to go to college).

So this leaves the school empty, except for Laurie, her boyfriend (and fellow faculty member) Will (Adam Arkin) and the security guard Ronny (LL Cool J) .  The kids, of course are hiding out and decide to have a night of romantic fun and reckless sex (or reckless fun and romantic sex, I don’t know). Michael is quietly stalking the grounds by this time, not quite as carefree in his slashing as the earlier films.  Sarah and Charlie are clearly knife fodder and Michael dispatches them quite ruthlessly.  These are some of the most intense sequences the franchise has seen in a long time, with some genuine discomfort and suspense.

John and Molly seek out Laurie, who is not to excited at the sight of her big brother.  Getting John and Molly off the campus, she turns back and decides this must end.  Grabbing an ax she starts to stalk Michael.  We get a very solid cat and mouse sequence that finally appears to result in Michael’s death.  But Laurie is no idiot, after Michael’s body is loaded into an ambulance in a body bag, she steals the vehicle, waiting for what she knows is going to happen.

Michael rises from the body bag, so Laurie intentionally crashes the ambulance.  Michael is pinned between a branch and the ambulance.  There is a somewhat touching moment, where Michael reaches out to Laurie in an almost child like fashion.  And for a moment?  Laurie hesitates, ax in hand.  Then she swings the ax and takes Michael’s head off.

All in all, Halloween:H20 works extremely well.  Easily the best of the sequels.  And as sequels go, it makes sense without having seen the original-without relying heavily on “plot exposition” guy.   The actors all do fine jobs and the direction and cinematography is good, with a great use of shadow.  Really, this film works well.  And had this been the last movie?  It would have ended the series on a high note. Of course, it was not the last, so the really high note they could have ended on?  Squandered.  But I still like this one.  It offers closure to the story, and Laurie comes out heroic and on top.

(Still) The Night He Came Home (Halloween II,1981)

halloween_2Halloween 2 is guilty of kicking off a lot of horror sequel trends. You remember that kid Randy from the Scream movies? The one who explained all the rules of the slasher genre? Halloween 2 pretty much nailed every one of the rules of a sequel that Randy talks about in Scream 2.

Halloween 2 does not suck. On the other hand, it is not quite as good as the first film. Carpenter and Hill are producers and helped with the script, but the film was directed by first time film director Rick Rosenthal (who has gone on to direct a lot of television, especially in the horror/fantasy genre such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Smallville) who returned to the last film before Rob Zombie’s reboot. So, as with many sequels, this was someone cutting their teeth.

Spoilers are cutting up next.  Ouch. Sorry about the pun.

The part of this film that works is we have our main cast returning and it continues on the same night as the original film.  This one picks up as Dr. Loomis believes he shot Michael dead, only, of course to look over the edge and see Michael is gone.

The story continues Michael’s unrelenting attack, though it becomes more refined.  People often forget,  it was Halloween 2 that introduced the idea that Michael and Laurie were siblings (It was also the second film that first used the song Mr. Sandman to creepy effect).  Nearly the entire second film takes place in a hospital, with the majority of film’s victims being hospital employees.

As the film starts, Laurie Strode is taken to the local hospital, which is pretty sparcely populated at the time, we see no patients (other than some newborns in the nursery at one point), only a skeletal staff of nurses and ambulance drivers.  Of the two drivers, we have the kind hearted Jimmy Lloyd (played by Last Starfighter Lance Guest) and the sex obsessed, crass Graham (played by Jeffrey Kramer).  Graham is constantly trying to get some alone time with his girlfriend, Nurse Bailey (Pamela Susan Shoop).  Jimmy on the other hand keeps trying to sneak in to talk to Laurie, though head nurse Mrs. Alves (Gloria Gifford) keeps interfering, insisting Jimmy let Laurie rest.

Dr. Loomis is still working with police to try and catch Michael, but that relationship becomes increasingly strained as the sheriff discovers that one of the dead teens is his own daughter.  It is when Marion Chambers (who we saw in the first film) comes to tell Loomis he must leave with her under state orders that they discover a truth that was hidden from even Loomis.  Michael had another sister, little Laurie Strode.  Loomis, being the determined guy he is, will not go down without a fight and demands to be taken to the hospital.

Of course, in the meantime, hospital staff have dropped like flies.  Laurie has been sedated, but she refuses to give up and stumbles through the hospital trying to escape the ever present Michael Myers.  If it sounds familiar, this is because many films have duplicated this cat and mouse since in the slasher and horror genre.  But Halloween 2 pulls it off well, it is one of the film’s strong points.

Loomis arrives at the hospital for a final showdown with Michael.  In one of the less plausible moments, Laurie manages to shoot both Michael’s eyes out with a gun…which only blinds him.   Holding a scalpel, he swings wildly as Laurie and Dr. Loomis turn on the various gas tanks in the room.  Loomis sends Laurie out of the room and then flicks a Bic lighter (okay, maybe it was some generic brand of lighter) blowing himself and Michael up.

This film ups the killings, using various implements found in the hospital (such as needles).  The kills are more gruesome and elaborate, the characters less dimensional (hardly a shock as there are more characters introduced).  It carries through pretty seamlessly from the first.  But it lacks something without Carpenter’s skilled eye for the use of shadows and light to obscure Michael.  So it has a different feel.

They do try and advance the story, rather than re-hash it (which is where we get the family connection exploited both well and poorly in later films).  It is notable that they killed Michael off believing that they were done with stories about Myers.  I mean, where else could they go?  The idea was that now they could make other movies with the Halloween title, but all new stories and characters.  And then they made Halloween 3.

The (First) Night He Came Home (Halloween, 1977)

halloween_originalThe late 70’s and early 80’s were pretty good to the horror genre. Plenty of long running series were kicked off then. Halloween was the start of a really strong run for John Carpenter as well. He produced some of his finest work between about 1978 and 1987.

Halloween was actually just started as an idea of a psycho stalking babysitters. This is not entirely new, and it played off various urban legends that started in the preceding decades about stalkers and babysitters as their prey. At some point, they came up with the idea of setting it on Halloween, hence the name. Halloween caused a lot of “holiday” themed imitators not long after, such as a little film called Friday the 13th.

By today’s standards, Halloween is remarkably tame. It’s body count is small, it is not overly graphic in it’s deaths and it focuses more on it’s characters than it’s monster. The movie is not about “Michael Myers, Serial Killer.” Oh sure, it’s tag line is “The Night HE Came Home,” but do not be fooled. Instead, it is about young Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis-at that time an unknown to the public) and her efforts to protect herself and the kid she is babysitting.

Spoilers follow…

The story is pretty simple to follow. As a young by, Michael Myers inexplicably murders his sister and is institutionalized. It’s made creepy by the fact that we see Michael coming from a fairly average family and home. There seems to be no obvious trigger. That’s what makes Michael scary. His motives are unknown. Freddy is a sadistic murderer getting revenge on the parents who killed him. Jason is killing careless camp counselors. But Michael? Michael does not seem to have a reason for what he does.

The film’s opening is masterfully creepy, as we see everything from a stalker’s point of view. Carpenter deftly walks through the opening entirely through Michael’s eyes, allowing the viewer to make their own conclusions about who the killer might be. The killer puts on a clown mask, and even then the camera continues to see through Michael’s eyes, now peering through the eye slits of a mask. The camera enters the room of a young attractive woman who clearly recognizes our stalker. It is not until moments later, as we go outside that the camera steps from behind Michaels eyes and his parents get out of their car do we discover that Michael is but a young child.

Carpenter quickly introduced us to Dr. Loomis (played by the ever entertaining Donald Pleasence) who is a passionate and seemingly caring doctor trying to get through to Michael, at least for a time. The films makes a leap of about fifteen years, where we discover Loomis has had a change of heart. He determined Michael is unreachable and simply needs to be locked away forever.

Loomis is on his way to the institution to plead against Michael’s being moved on a dark and stormy night, and is surprised to see patients wandering in the rain. While Loomisleaves the car, a nurse sits patiently. She is startled by the noise of someone on top of the car, the person scares the nurse out of the car and then steals it, leaving the nurse and Loomis behind. Dr. Loomis is no fool and realizes it was Myers.

We are then introduced to Laurie Strode with her family. Clearly, this is a loving family that has strong ties, and Carpenter manages to establish this in less than five minutes at the breakfast table. Laurie is asked by her real estate agent father to drop a key off at the old Myers house for a showing. his sequence sets a lot of information before us. First, Myers is a bit of a local legend. Something has happened to Michael’s parents, and judging from the home, it has been vacant for years. in fact, it has a reputation of the local haunted house, with a young local boy Tommy Doyle (Brian Andrews) begging Laurie not to go up to the house.

The story snowballs from there as Laurie and her friends notice both an unfamiliar car and stranger showing up near by. Laurie keeps thinking she sees Michael behind trees or in the back yard. In the script Michael is described, quite reasonably as the shape. Michael is not defined at all, other than he appears large. Even his mask, iconic as it is, has no real features to it. It’s lifeless, as is his jumpsuit.

Laurie and her friend Annie (Nancy Loomis) both go to babysit some kids, while another friend, Lynda (P.J. Soles) hooks up with her boyfriend. This all leads to the inevitable series of deaths that culminate in Laurie trying to protect Tommy, Lindsey (Kyle Richards) and herself from the “boogey man”.

All the while Dr. Loomis is running around town with the local sheriff trying to locate and capture Michael. Attracted by screaming kids (Lindsey and Tommy, who Laurie sent out of the house) Loomis runs into the house and saves Laurie, shooting Michael multiple times. Michael falls out of a window and hits the ground below. But when Dr. Loomis looks out the window he sees Michael is gone. It’s a classic ending, and one that now we all recognize as an opening for a sequel (though Carpenter states that this was not the plan, it was simply meant to be a creepy ending-the sequel was a total afterthought).

What makes Halloween work is it’s use of shadows to obscure Myers, and it’s skillful use of POV shots. Many moments are shown from Michael’s perspective, keeping him mysterious, even as we see things through his eyes. Then there are the musical stings. Much like Psycho, the stings hit at the exact right moments. And that creepy theme!

Halloween is a definite classic, and though it’s unfortunate that it paved a way for cheap slashers, it is noteworthy for it’s focus on the characters. The fact is, most of the copycats missed what made Halloween work and created a genre almost unrecognizable as being compatible with Halloween. Modern slashers create such unlikable characters you quickly start to root for the killer. Carpenter never confuses the audience. Dr. Loomis and Laurie Strode are our heroes, Michael Myers is the villain. The film is a great example of film making with limited resources as well.

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